CCRES Senior Advisor Melanie King with Selayar’s Vice Bupati, H. Saiful Arif at the official launch in Selayar. (Picture: M. Paterson)

Selayar visit evokes stories, spirits from the past

When the Regency of Selayar’s Vice Bupati, H. Saiful Arif, welcomed the CCRES team to Selayar in February, he touched on a fascinating cultural and trade connection between South Sulawesi and northern Australia that dates back centuries.

The humble sea cucumber or teripang (Holothurian sp.) gave rise to a trade route which, at its height in the 18th Century, stretched from Xiamen in southern China to Arnhem Land and the Kimberley in Australia – with the bustling port city of Makassar at its centre.

The South Sulawesi ‘trepangers’ were skilled fishers and sailors of various local ethnicities. With financial backing from Dutch and Chinese merchants, and local Sultans, the trepangers supplied the Chinese market, where teripang was prized as a culinary delicacy and aphrodisiac.

The strong wind blowing from the north-west we encountered in February was the same wind the trepangers used to set sail for Australia, although a little earlier in the season (usually December). The trip to Arnhem Land or Marege’, meaning ‘wild country’, was 1600 kilometres. It took two weeks in total, with the last stop for food and water near Timor, followed by a four-day sail across open water to the Cobourg Peninsula.

Sources of evidence including the testimony of descendants, archaeological finds and the notes of English navigator Matthew Flinders show Australia’s local Aboriginal people were expecting the trepangers and employed to help dive for and process the teripang. Tamarind trees introduced from South Sulawesi and stone fireplaces (for smoking the harvest) marked previous processing sites. As the season progressed, the visitors and locals would slowly make their way to the bottom of the Gulf of Carpentaria, from where the trepangers returning to Makassar on the south-west monsoonal winds in April.

In an anthology published by ANU in 2012, Macassan history and heritage, the editors, Clark and May, write that ‘dozens, if not hundreds, of Aboriginal sojourners are said to have sailed on the return voyage to Makassar, settling there and beginning families with local women.’

It is difficult, though not impossible, to find the Selayar archipelago’s connection to the teripang trade in the literature. In same volume Macknight, for example, mentions the diary of Sultan Abdurrazak Jalaluddin where ‘on 16 December 1752, a certain Ance Kia buys from the ruler what sounds like an annual licence for the trepang market on Bonerate.’

Selayar was the first stop for the sailors out of Makassar for supplies, but also presumably for human resources, given the famed Selayarese expertise in fishing, sailing and boat building. What was exciting about the Vice Bupati’s speech was the following direct link with Australia in terms of a local place name:

Terdapat sebuah perkampungan di Pulau Jampea bernama Marege’ di mana kampung ini dahulunya adalah tempat nelayan singgah sebelum melanjutkan perjalananan ke Australia. [There is a village on Jampea Island named Marege' which was once a stop-over for fishermen before continuing their trip to the Australia.]

There are so many other interesting aspects of this centuries-long connection; for example, the work of Regina Ganter, in which she describes traces of vocabulary ‘that is derived from Muslim prayer’ in the rituals of the Yolngu people of north-east Arnhem Land. Macknight and McIntosh, in their transcriptions of a mourning ceremony found the words ‘Se-ri ma-kas-si’ at the end, which is very similar to terima kasih in Malay (now Indonesian) or thank you (2011; 1996).

Of course this is the bare bones of what can be found in the Australian literature. There would be much more where this came from, as well as research and knowledge from Indonesia and other countries. If anyone is interested in further reading, the following is a good start:

Clark M & May SK (eds) 2012, Macasssan history and heritage: journeys, encounters and influences, Australian National University Press, available online at

Macknight C 1976, The voyage to Marege’, Macassan trepangers in Australia, Melbourne University Press.

Paula Bradley, Currie Communications, Melbourne.

The visit to Selayar by CCRES partners included consultations with local fishermen, farmers, cooperatives, religious leaders, teachers, the media and government officials.